Governor Daugaard’s Weekly Column: Overview of the 2015 Legislative Session

Overview of the 2015 Legislative Session
A column by Gov. Dennis Daugaard:

DaugaardEarlier this month, the State Legislature concluded the main run of its nine-week session. The session is a time for debates, and some disagreements, but we can be proud of the work our legislators did and the decisions they made.

This year, the Legislature passed an important bill to reform our juvenile justice system. South Dakota has the second highest juvenile commitment rate in the nation, even though our juvenile violent crime arrest rate is just one-third of the national average. Rather than continuing to place juveniles in expensive state-funded facilities, we will invest in proven intervention and treatment programs that keep youth close to home and connected to their communities. This bill passed with only seven “no” votes and I appreciate the Legislature’s strong support.

I also appreciated the Legislature’s passage of a comprehensive road and bridge funding bill. Especially in a rural state like South Dakota, good quality roads are our lifeline. State highways, county oil, township gravel and hundreds of rural bridges are in need of additional maintenance. Maintaining infrastructure is one of the most fundamental functions of government. The Legislature showed true courage and vision this year by dealing with this problem now, rather than leaving it for future generations. No one likes to raise taxes, but by spending a little more on maintenance now, South Dakota will avoid much higher costs later.

The Legislature passed a state budget this year that is honestly balanced. In South Dakota, we don’t spend money we don’t have. We don’t rely on inflated revenue estimates or accounting gimmicks. We use ongoing revenue to fund ongoing expenses. At least 21 other states are dealing with deficits today, often because of short-sighted budget decisions. Meanwhile, South Dakota is becoming even stronger. This year, we put new limits on borrowing by state authorities, established procedures to more effectively collect debt owed to the state and gained greater insurance protection for our state buildings.

Our state budget is a statement of our priorities. Education is 45 percent of general fund spending, and we increased the K-12 formula by more than the law requires. The Legislature also authorized the first increase in the South Dakota Opportunity Scholarship since it was created, and added funding for high school students taking dual credit courses at our universities and technical institutes. I also joined with legislative leaders to create a Blue Ribbon Task Force on Teachers and Students, which will spend the next year studying the teaching workforce and our school funding formula. The state budget also increased reimbursement for Medicaid providers, with extra funds for providers who offer front-line care in our communities.

Legislators made many other important decisions this year. We modernized our laws to deal with contagious disease outbreaks and to offer better screening of infants for inherited or genetic disorders. We improved our insurance laws to offer better coverage for children with autism. We found a way to continue the important work of the Jolene’s Law task force, which is taking on the difficult issue of sexual abuse of children.

We continued our state’s investment in the Sanford Underground Research Facility, which offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a national laboratory in the Black Hills. We increased local control over decisions about livestock development. And we passed a constitutional amendment that, if approved by the voters, will strengthen higher education by recognizing the important role of our technical institutes in workforce development.

South Dakotans can be proud of the work of our state legislators. The vast majority of the big decisions are made on a bipartisan basis. The highway bill, the juvenile justice bill, the state budget and many other bills passed with broad bipartisan support.

No one agrees with every decision or every vote, but our legislators do their work respectfully, with open-minds and a commitment to service. Unlike Washington, D.C., where partisanship leads to gridlock and gamesmanship, our legislators consider every issue on its own merits.

Our part-time legislators come to Pierre for nine weeks in winter, and then return home to live and work among the friends and neighbors they serve. I thank all 105 state legislators for their hard work this year. If you see a state legislator in the coming days, I hope you say “thank you” as well.